Mark Lanegan – interview
Louder Than War were lucky enough to have a chat with Mark Lanegan before his Wolverhampton show last week. Here’s what he had to say…
Arriving full of apologies for the usual snail paced motorway traffic, Mark Lanegan fixes me with an unreadable look and the cracks a weary smile; “Hey, tell me about it – I live in LA!”
With that I am ushered into a bare room with literally nothing but two chairs in the bowels of the Wulfrun Hall, this is not a promising start. At least you get a table in a police interview room!
Contrary to popular myth Mark himself is happy to talk, quietly spoken and picking his words carefully at times, he comes across as a man constantly surprised that people might be interested in what he has to say.
LTW: The success of this year’s Blues Funeral album has meant a busy year for you, have you actually been off the road since it came out?
ML: About a month and a half, a week here and a week there – I’ve been doing it for so long, if I spend too much time at home I get a little weird.
LTW: With all your collaborations, it’s been eight years between Bubblegum and Blues Funeral – do you know what’s next yet?
ML: It’ll be another record of my own. I’ve been away from it for so long and now that I’m doing it again, I’m enjoying it. We’ve already started recording the next thing, so…
LTW: So you’re recording while you’re on the road?
ML: No, when I’m off the road.
LTW: And are you recording with Alain Johannes again?
ML: I’ve started recording some stuff with him, but I might do a record of covers too, that’s the other thing IÃÂve got going on. The record of covers I’m gonna make with the same guy (Martin Feveyear) who did I’ll Take Care Of You (Mark’s previous album of covers, released on Sub Pop in 1999) as producer and as many of the same musicians as I can use.
LTW: You’ve mentioned before that when it came to writing this album, you went back to a bag of tapes you carried around with you, that had all your song ideas, only to find the tapes had got demagnetised. That must have been a kick in the teeth?
ML: Well, momentarily it was, but that’s just because I’m used to starting every record by going through those tapes and finding something to start with. But in this case I’d moved a bunch of times since I had even gone into them and I’d been doing the other things for quite a while, so I hadn’t really gone into them and the new stuff I was doing, I was just doing while I was touring, like into my phone so I had that stuff digitally. When I got through about five of these tapes and realised they were all blank, I just (thought) ‘que sera, what can I do?’
LTW: So those songs are gone, or will some of them come back to you?
ML: Well, I’m sure it’s already happened y’know. The stuff that usually makes it to the top is the stuff that’s in my head anyway, the tapes are just a way of kick starting the process, to find something I had overlooked basically. The stuff that I’m not overlooking is the stuff that usually makes it to at least a semi-professional recording stage – whether it makes it onto the record that’s another thing.
LTW: The fact that you still use tapes is interesting…
ML: Well now, I’m actually, when I’m recording on a cassette I actually transfer it to my computer (laughs).
LTW: So do you just record digitally now, or do you still use analogue?
ML: Both y’know, it just depends. Sometimes I’m putting down vocals on tape… Let’s put it this way, when ProTools first arrived, I was completely sceptical and fearful of it.
As time has gone on, not only does it sound fine, y’know, maybe it’s just ‘cos I’m used to hearing it, but also the convenience of it. It’s just, like, so much more immediate and so much quicker, I’ve fallen right in with it.
But it took me a long time to get a cell phone too and then once I had it for one day – this is in the late nineties – the system went out and I lost it for two days completely, it was already like my world had ended! I had a taste of it for one day…
LWT: You played Falmouth last night, how was that?
ML: Fantastic. I always wanted to go to Cornwall, it was beautiful – I loved it walking around the town and the audience was fantastic. But it’s no less a privilege coming to Wolverhampton and playing music to people, but when I get a chance to go to somewhere I’ve not been to before, that’s what I get most excited about these days and that was the case last night.
LWT: So are you more aware of your surroundings as you get older – it must be easy to just stay on the bus and not really know where you are?
ML: Well, again, I mean, this is probably my third or fourth time playing this room in coming up 25 years or whatever and I’ve also played the place across the street and it depends on where you’re at – I’ve come to this town and got off the bus. I’ve also come to this town and not got off the bus. It just sorta depends on where you’re at on the day and how much time you have and all those variables. Ideally I’d get a day off in every town that I go to, but that’s not the way it works out.
LTW: But you tour too hard for that – you’re playing Reading & Leeds festival, but in between you’re off to France for a festival!
ML: Well, that’s the festival season, you gotta take them where they are and that’s normally at the weekends.
LTW: Are festival gigs any different for you?
ML: (Playing to a different audience) that’s the fun of it, playing for, I’m guessing 95% of people who haven’t come to see you, or even know who you are and have just caught you in passing, so it exposes you to somebody new.
But it’s also cool because I get to see other bands, see some friends or see bands that you haven’t seen before but wanted to catch. It’s totally different of course, but I like it.
LTW: You mentioned the fact that you were listening to the Damned’s Phantasmagoria album around the time of writing the track Phantasmagoria Blues on the latest record, do you go back to those records that first got you into music as a teenager at all now?
ML: I don’t really listen to the same stuff as I did when I was a teenager, but that’s because the majority of it I played so much.
I mean, god bless Led Zeppelin but I must have played Led Zeppelin III – well all those records – a zillion times on my old turntable, stacked up so that once I had played it the next one would drop and one side of that would play for hours on end.
So, of course, when I hear Led Zeppelin by chance I still enjoy it, but it’s not something I would probably go out of my way to play. That said, of the stuff I listened to as a teenager, that I’d still listen to now, well the Stranglers I’ll always love, The Damned – all their stuff from the first record to Phantasmagoria – it’s all different and as far as the rock stuff goes, that stuff I’ll always…(go back to).
LTW: You’re not keen on looking back, even though we’ve just done it there, but you are currently playing Crawlspace an old Screaming Trees song live, which is something of a surprise.
ML: Well that song and a lot of that record (Screaming Trees – Last Words: The Final Recordings) were demos that we did in the very last year of our existence and they were songs that we wrote in the studio and recorded and never played them live anywhere, never had the opportunity to.
That record when it came out, shortly before Blues Funeral, I hadn’t listened to it to okay the mixes or anything and I was surprised I liked a couple of the songs – I like a few of them actually – hadn’t heard them in years. So in that way they’re brand new to me, they’re mine, but they’re sorta like playing covers.
If I really wanted to like pander to the Trees faction, small as it is, (laughs) I would play something else from Sweet Oblivion. I’m not sure there are songs on there I would enjoy playing, it’s all those years ago and in an hour and a half there’s only so many songs I can play.
LTW: But you are playing songs like Creeping Coastline Of Lights…
ML: You know, I will probably always play that song. I loved the original (by the Leaving Trains), I consider it mine now! (laughs)
LTW: Another song that you could put into that bracket is your version of the old 13th Floor Elevators song Slide Machine (covered on the B side of the single Stay in 1998). Any plans to play that live in the future?
ML: Y’know I think the last time I played Slide Machine it was in this very hall in probably 2001 / 2002. I was just thinking about that. It’s another song that I totally love – obviously, because I recorded it. It’s so odd that you should mention that song, ‘cos I was just thinking about it!
LTW: You obviously enjoy covering other people’s songs…
ML: That’s the way I was introduced to a lot of music that I’ve ended up loving by hearing other people covering it.
LTW: Coming back to your own work, is it right that there’s an anthology set for release?
ML: Yeah, there’s an American company called Light In The Attic that’s doing a collection, I’m not sure when it’s going to be out, whether it’s this year or next, but I’m guessing it’ll be ready next year.
LTW: Is that a boxed set?
ML: No, it’s I don’t know how many vinyls it’s gonna be, but it’ll be two CDs – one of previously released stuff and one of unreleased stuff – outtakes and stuff that just hasn’t appeared on records.
I appreciate that someone’s interested (enough to compile it)… let’s put it this way, it’s so surprising that I’m sitting here talking about music to somebody, I just never thought that anybody would… I just never thought that it would last this long or get to this stage or that I would ever have a body of work that you could make an anthology out of or anything like that.
I guess it’s true that if you stick around long enough, anything can happen (laughs).
LTW: You’ve recently contributed to a second album of songs by your old friend Jeffery Lee Pierce, it’s clearly something that matters to you.
ML: Absolutely. I’ve just got a song yesterday that I’m gonna do for a third one. Jeffery was like one of the main influences on me as far as knowing how to make music, the way I write music. Directly and by example, he taught me how to write songs and I own a great debt to him and therefore to his memory. I think he’s criminally unknown, so as long as there’s an opportunity to honour his memory and his work and I have an opportunity to be involved, I’ll do it.
LTW: Now that you’re playing the new material from Blues Funeral live are the songs changing at all?
ML: Well they naturally do just because it’s a different experience doing a version of a song that’s been documented. We record our live shows and make up CDs to sell them on the merch so I’m sure if we were to listen to the latest one of those compared to the record there’s probably quite a bit of difference on these songs.
That’s just something that happens, as far as me being totally aware of it, I’m not ‘cos it’s like you can’t really see it.
It’s like if your gaining weight or losing weight, because you see yourself so often – I’m probably the last one to notice! (laughs) I love the music but it’s not something I would listen (back) to. Given the choice of listening to music, it’s probably the last thing I would listen to – something that we’ve done.
Because we’re doing festivals we get asked immediately after the show to okay live recordings or videos for some kind of broadcast and I say I can’t do that, especially not right after a show, maybe months from now I can go through my computer and someone else can have a look at it and that ends up being my road manager.
LTW: The live band you have now, how did that come about?
ML: Well, my band leader Aldo Struyf (keyboards, guitar) has been playing with me for ten years.
He came to the United States – he’s Belgian – to play on Bubblegum, we’ve recorded a bunch of stuff, he’s also been in my solo band from before Bubblegum until now and although we’ve played Australia, South America, the United States, primarily we’re playing over here (Europe), we’ll go to those other places one time on this record, but we’re coming over here three times on this record.
So it’s easier for me to come here than bring an entire band from the United States. Also because he knows all the songs and he’s my man here it just made sense for him to find some guys and put a band together. So it was out of convenience, but also out of being based around him.
So they’re all Belgian guys and I spend a lot of time in Belgium, it’s just like home and there’s a lot of fantastic musicians there and my band are among those guys.
LTW: Any more Gutter Twins work planned?
ML: Yeah. Me and Greg just got up and did a song for Pukkelpop the other day. We’re both gonna do another record first and then we’ll hook up and do that. So after whatever comes next for me I think the next record after that will be a Gutter Twins record.
LTW: Is that unless you get asked to do something else – you don’t seem very good at saying ‘no’ to collaborations.
ML: Well, y’know once you make a commitment to something you should stick with it and I love Greg, I love working with him, we have a lot of fun, we hang out together all the time when we’re not making music.
LTW: It’s kind of greedy, but it’ll be nice to have another Mark Lanegan record and another Gutter Twins one!
ML: Well, God willing, you’ll have both.
LTW: You’ve got to places like Australia and Argentina on this record, how do the gigs vary?
ML: For me the differences are obviously off stage – out in the real world. It doesn’t matter where people are from, music is the equaliser.
An audience might be more enthusiastic one night, or my perception of it one day as opposed to the next day (might change) but I can’t really trust my perception because I’m really in the moment, singing songs and not really paying strict attention to what’s happening on the other side of the fence.
The crowd tonight could totally hate us and throw rotten tomatoes, whereas last night they seemingly loved us, so… (drifts into laughter).
LTW: It seems you’re very much about putting the songs out front rather than yourself?
ML: Well yeah, getting up in front of people and doing anything is sorta not really in my nature. I’m a private person.
So for years I was really uncomfortable with getting up and singing in front of people, especially singing, but getting up and talking front of a load of people would be way more frightening now, ‘cos I’ve been singing for so long! Now I’m used to it. Now I actually enjoy it.
I mean, I watched Bush play the other day in Switzerland and y’know they play for two and a half hours or something and Gavin is all over the stage, crazy, athletic, singing and I really admire that, but for me, just to stand there and sing for an hour and a half takes all my effort!
LTW: But despite you putting the music first, you do make yourself available after your gigs talking to people at the merch stand, what’s the thinking behind that?
ML: Well for several years now, I’ve embraced playing live, but somewhere along the line (I decided) I just wanna do things that are good for me and it’s good for me to be in the world and it’s good for me to meet people and it’s good to get back to these people who so freely give to me.
Really the privilege is mine to be able to play music and make a living out of it. I’ve spent a lot of my life not doing things that made anybody happy. So it’s good for me and if it makes someone else happy, it’s great for me. That’s the only way I can explain it really.
With that our time is up. Mark has a soundcheck to do and I am left with the impression that I have just spent half an hour in the company of an absolute gentleman.
The Mark Lanegan Band play Edinburgh (29th Aug) and the End of the Road festival in North Dorset (1st Sept) before returning in November for dates across Europe, including London HVM Forum (4th Dec). See www.marklanegan.com for details.
Blues Funeral is out now on 4AD records.
Interview by Macthehack. You can read more from him on LTW here.